No smoking guns

As I mentioned a few days ago, I’m in the midst of Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom, his history of the past six or seven years in Russian, European, and American politics and a warning about the decay of the rule of law. I’ve still got about half of the book to go, but in the meantime, Snyder discussed the broad outlines of his research at a Politics and Prose event in Washington, DC, on April 7. As Snyder notes — and amply demonstrates — the very idea that there will be any “smoking gun” definitively linking Trump to Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign is quite nice to think about but quite unlikely; and, more to the point, that deliberate collusion in a legal sense may be impossible to prove. Which isn’t to say that Trump and his campaign were not guilty of it in a practical and especially moral and ethical sense. I’ll write more about the book shortly.

Snyder speaks tonight in New York at the Museum of Jewish Heritage at 7.00pm; he returns to New York for a presentation at the Ukrainian Museum on April 22. If you can’t make it, enjoy the below video from the April 7 event. And I recommend you have a glass of wine or beer nearby — and additional bottles at hand. It may be the most important and sobering video you watch for a while (hence that booze) .

Reading list

I’ve been in the midst of an unusual reading jag lately. Just the other day, I wrapped up Anne Applebaum‘s Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe, a travel journal of her journey through Eastern Europe in 1991, first published in 1994 and recently reissued with a new introduction; I picked this up after finishing her most recent book, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, and she’s become one of those writers whom I think I’ll be reading every word of. (Fortunately I won’t have to wait for her next book; she writes a weekly column for the Washington Post.) Next on my bedside table is Timothy Snyder‘s The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, this to follow up on Snyder’s monograph On Tyranny from last year, which I read in a quick afternoon recently. Like Applebaum, Snyder is a public intellectual and a historian of the same region; before the publication of On Tyranny, he was best known for Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning and is a member of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience. Both writers are extraordinarily graceful and are possessed of incontrovertible expertise, indefatigable research skills, and an admirable dry wit. I’d have reviewed both Applebaum’s and Snyder’s recent books here, but in my haste to evangelize I loaned out my copies of these books to friends and family and therefore don’t have them readily to hand.

Applebaum and Snyder share a few affinities with myself which perhaps leave me open to a particularly personal admiration of their work. We are all of the same historical generation (I was born in 1962, Applebaum in 1964, and Snyder in 1969), and we each have two children. These seem rather trivial coincidences, but I’m not sure that they are. Apart from the Vietnam War — an outgrowth of the Cold War itself — the major historical event of our early lives was the failure of Soviet-style Communism and the opening of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. This happened when I was 27. (And as it happens, the most recent film I’ve enjoyed was The Death of Stalin, directed by Armando Iannucci — born 1963.)

It’s hard to describe for those who are younger just what it felt like to live in an America in the midst of the Cold War, when the arms race was in full swing and TV movies like The Day After reminded us that the end was just around the corner. In the 1970s we also had the appearance in the West of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago to reveal to us the depth of the horrors of the gulag under Stalin; the Soviet government’s treatment of the writer and that book was a reminder that such governments still existed among us and constituted a real threat. The shock of the quick and relatively non-violent collapse of the Soviet regime, both in the USSR and in the countries like Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the rest of the Eastern Bloc, was a shock to the soul. I can’t speak for Applebaum and Snyder, but it had seemed until then that there’d be no end to the East/West conflict in my time, that I’d live most of my life with the same geopolitical angst.

In 1990 I decided it was time to see the region for myself, and for six weeks I traveled through Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia, in those pre-EU days gingerly negotiating a welter of customs and border guards along the way. Partly I was drawn there by my own ethnic background; my grandparents had emigrated to the US in the early 20th century from Ukraine, Lithuania, and Slovakia (as we know them now; both Applebaum and Snyder amply demonstrate that the placenames of these nation-states have historically been arbitrary fictions). Otherwise, I’d been intrigued by Timothy Garton Ash‘s journalism about the region. It was astonishing to experience the sheer joy that you could still find in the streets of Prague and Budapest, the cheerful welcome that Americans and their dollars received in beer halls, cafes, restaurants, and hotels; it was in Prague that year that I attended my first and until now only Rolling Stones concert, and saw Vaclav Havel standing next to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on a balcony of the Prague Castle. Two years later — at about the same time Applebaum was travelling through regions somewhat further north and east — I spent nearly twelve months teaching English in a small Moravian town of 4,000 people.

I was in that town when Czechoslovakia split apart at midnight on January 1, 1993. Czechoslovakia, too, had been something of a national fiction as well, carved out of Central Europe at the end of World War I by the victorious powers, but in hindsight it may have been the first inkling of the extreme nationalism that is only now reaching full bloom in Hungary, Ukraine, and other states. The new Czech Republic/Slovakia border was only a few miles away, and there was little celebration on either side of the new border crossing, especially among my now-Czech, formerly-Czechoslovak acquaintances and friends. There were differences between the two states of course; they shared a common language, but of distinctly different dialects; Bratislava had its eyes set on the east, Prague and Brno on the west. Havel delivered a distinctly subdued, even mournful New Year’s Day address that day, almost as if he could foresee that this was the end of one world and the beginning of another, more angst-ridden geopolitics after the miracle of the Velvet Revolution.

It seems that Snyder and Applebaum recognize that as well. It may have been this peculiarly historical and personal perspective that has led to their ability to recognize the increasingly authoritarian, tyrannical nature of world politics, not least here in the US as well. Of course, today’s tyrants won’t resemble Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, or Mao; they couldn’t. History doesn’t repeat itself, but we can learn from it about our present situation. As Snyder told Süddeutsche Zeitung in an interview last year, “The main advantage that we have is that we can learn from the 1930s. Again, it’s very important to stress that history does not repeat. But it does offer us examples and patterns, and thereby enlarges our imaginations and creates more possibilities for anticipation and resistance.”

These days I’ve also been drawn to early American history; as a native Philadelphian I was used to being reminded of the history of the United States, and the principles upon which it was founded, every time I walked around the city, in which history can be found on every streetcorner: in architecture and buildings, physical reminders of those principles and the people who fought for them. Not too long ago I introduced my daughters, aged nine and eight, to this same history, and of course their ancestral forebears are my own as well.

This is why I hear quite clearly Applebaum and Snyder’s call for resistance to Donald Trump and his administration, a president and administration seemingly dedicated to the destructions of those institutions — the free press, the judiciary, Congress, civic organizations — that are necessary to the rule of law as conceived by the founders of the United States. It’s also why I appear to be giving away so many of their books to my friends and family. In order to change or defend anything, you have to understand why you must change or defend it, and some of the reasons for this can be found in history. So I read Applebaum and Snyder; I supplement them with Richard Hofstadter and Susan Jacoby; I turn again to Havel and Timothy Garton Ash.

For quite some time I found it difficult to read books; I’m as susceptible to the charms of Facebook, iPhones, and the internet as anyone else; they’re bright, shiny things that move and make noise. We’re fascinated by them as children, as well we should be. But there comes a time when we have to grow up.

Uncommon sense

“Join, or Die,” a political cartoon drawn by Benjamin Franklin and first published in his Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754.

My recent visit to the Museum of the American Revolution led me to Gordon S. Wood‘s brief The American Revolution: A History, one of the volumes in the Modern Library Chronicles series. It’s impossible to cover such a complex period of American history in 166 pages of text, but it’s better than nothing and, for those of us bored to tears by the evocation of the period in our elementary school history classes, necessary. It helps that Wood is one of the foremost scholars of the Revolutionary period and possessed of a felicitous prose style besides (he’s won the Bancroft, John H. Dunning, and Pulitzer prizes). There’s no harm in this refresher course of our origins.

I unconditionally love this country, but a blind unconditional love is a stupid love, and to overlook America’s obvious flaws and dark periods helps nobody. “The history of the American Revolution, like the history of the nation as a whole, ought not to be viewed as a story of right and wrong or good and evil from which moral lessons are to be drawn,” Wood writes. “The Revolution … is not a simple morality play; it is a complicated and often ironic story that needs to be explained and understood, not celebrated or condemned.” Among the ironies that Wood emphasizes is that Washington was a rather mediocre battlefield general; that most of the “Founding Fathers” had personal, pecuniary self-interests in devising the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; and, most obviously, that insisting on freedom and human rights in a country in which slavery flourished and women were relegated to second-class status is hypocritical, to say the least, and the legacies of this hypocrisy stain this country to the present day. But we must file this under “bathwater, throwing babies out with.” The American Revolution and its leading actors also nobly struggled against monarchical tyranny, and out of their thinking, debating and writing came one of the most inspiring examples of republican and democratic government the world has ever seen. To say that the revolutionaries failed to fully live up to many of their ideals (many of which I share, like the separation of powers, separation of church and state, freedom of speech and religion, private property, and a means of chucking the bastards out when we need to), and that they failed to foresee some of the unintended consequences of their decisions (such as the recent failure of the Electoral College system), is only to say that they were as human as the rest of us, despite the genius of many of them. A man’s reach, though, should exceed his grasp, even if we never get to heaven. I may not be able to agree with the musical Hamilton‘s suggestion that “New York is the greatest city in the world,” but the United States is certainly the greatest country, even if it’s great in spite of its current leadership, as Donald Trump, his cronies in the GOP, and those who support them destroy and mock the ideals upon which Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, and the others founded this land. Talk about self-interest.

Slamming the revolutionary generation has become rather the thing these days, and some read Howard Zinn and think they’re the first to find the Holy Grail of Historical Truth. But it’s no surprise that the early Americans failed to solve the issues of race and equality. We don’t seem much closer to solving them ourselves, and this ambivalence has never been far from the surface of the ways we look at early American history. Christ, Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone even wrote a song about it, for the Broadway musical 1776. In “Molasses to Rum to Slaves,” John Cullum as Edward Rutledge, the South Carolina delegate to the Second Continental Congress, offers a savage appraisal of the slave trade that implicates all of the Americans gathered at the Congress. It continues to implicate us. Below, the song as it appeared in the 1972 film version of the musical.

The national pastime

The wintry mess that infested New York’s skies, streets, and sidewalks yesterday would indicate that we’re still far from springtime, which is supposed to begin on March 20. I’ll believe it when I see it. But a surer indication of spring’s debut is the start of baseball season, which this year falls on March 29.

Yesterday I mentioned Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies, and you should still look that one up. But her next book will be Why Baseball Matters, which Yale University Press will pour into bookstores on March 20. “Baseball’s greatest charm — a clockless suspension of time — is also its greatest liability in a culture of digital distraction,” runs the publisher’s blurb for the book. “Jacoby argues forcefully that the major challenge to baseball today is a shortened attention span at odds with a long game in which great hitters fail two out of three times. Without sanitizing this basic problem, Why Baseball Matters reminds us that the game has retained its grip on our hearts precisely because it has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to reinvent itself in times of immense social change.”

You can pre-order the book from Amazon here, but I want to conclude with the book’s epigraph, a particularly apt meditation from novelist Philip Roth, which appeared in the April 2, 1973, issue of the New York Times under the title “My Baseball Years”:

It seems to me that through baseball I was put in touch with a more humane and tender brand of patriotism, lyrical rather than martial or righteous in spirit, and without the reek of saintly zeal, a patriotism that could not so easily be sloganized, or contained in a high-sounding formula to which you had to pledge something vague but all-encompassing called your “allegiance.”